Many consumers are unaware that a large chunk of their wardrobe is essentially plastic. More than 60% of the global fiber  market is polyester, a carbon-intensive petroleum product which has been refined to the point of doing almost anything we ask of it. It can look like silk, cotton, or soft faux fur, or can be combined with natural materials to improve their performance and lower cost.

But consumers are very aware that the ocean is filling up with plastic. By one estimate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 unless we course correct. Most of the plastic entering the ocean (86%) comes from Asia, where use of plastic disposables is skyrocketing and collection and recycling infrastructure has yet to be built. Asia is also where 86% of polyester textiles are manufactured.

An obvious solution? Source the raw material for polyester manufacturing right from Asia’s plastic crisis.

Turns out, that’s exactly what fashion companies are doing.

Take the European brand C&A. Polyester accounts for 21% of the material it uses in its clothing, so the company has set a goal of replacing virgin polyester made from petroleum with polyester made from recycled water bottles. C&A China is leading the way, selling 30,000 denim garments in 2016 made with Global Recycled Standard (GRS)-certified polyester.

In Delhi, the company Conserve India shows the benefit of sourcing materials where you manufacture. The ethical fashion manufacturer pays waste pickers for all manner of plastic waste and has so far transformed 12,000 tonnes of waste into belts and wallets that are sold in fair trade boutiques all over the world. “We use everything that comes into the waste stream,” says the company’s founder Anita Ahuja, an Ashoka Fellow. “Tire tubes, seat belts, fire hoses, cement bags, rice bags, packaging material from bread. For each material we have a different way to process it and a design lab where we experiment, like what kind of shapes and structure the product should have.” Waste-pickers supply 80% of the company’s raw recyclable material. Ahuja plans to release the process her company uses to recycle the plastic waste, so that other companies can use it for bigger environmental impact.

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